What Does “Composition” Mean?

Cat & Rule of Thirds  White horse in field  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“Photography is not like painting. There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life offers itself to you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative.”    I included that quote by famous French photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, because he used the word “composition”, and it is that word and how it is currently being used that I have been recently thinking about.

The word composition gets thrown around a lot when discussing photographs.  I’ll read forums where responses to posted images might say something like, “great capture, good composition,” or sometimes, something as meaningless as “I love your composition”.

I know the posters don’t actually mean composition as a photographic technique. I think it has just become an alternative word that means “picture”.  Modern photographers seem to hesitate referring to a photograph someone has posted to an online site as a picture. They want a more modern word, and I guess using the word “composition” instead of “picture” has become that word.

That came to mind, when a young photographer said to me, “I don’t really know a lot about photography, but what I do know is that I am really good at is composition.”  That was one of the few times I have been left speechless.

Photographic composition is defined as, “the selection and arrangement of subjects within the picture area.”  And unlike those who replace the word picture with the word composition, I use composition and compositional guidelines to help me enhance a photograph’s impact.

Photographers are limited by the actual physical appearance of the subjects they are photographing, and depend on camera position, the perspective created by different lense’s focal lengths, and the elements that make up a picture to communicate to viewer’s what they saw when they made the photograph.

I think about what is important and how I want to arrange my composition, and I consciously subtract those elements that I think are unimportant or distracting. When setting up a composition I usually think about and apply the ‘Rule of Thirds’ wherein we divide the image into nine equal segments with two vertical and two horizontal lines. The Rule of Thirds says that you should position the most important elements in your scene along these lines, or at the points where they intersect, and by doing so, adding balance and interest to one’s picture.

I looked up composition online where there are page after page of composition tips. I decided I’d add my own, “apple technique to proper picture making and composition”.  Here goes!

While driving along and finding an inspiring scene.   Don’t just point the camera out the car window!

1. Stop the car.

2. Get out.

3. Leave the camera in the camera bag.

4. Get an apple and eat it as one looks at the inspiring scene. Think about what is likeable about it, and make some choices as to how compose, or arrange, the features within the picture area you photographing.  Photographers should ask; what would someone like to say about the scene to the viewer?

5. Finally, go back to the car, get the camera, and make the picture.

Elliott Erwitt, American, documentary photographer wrote, “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place… I’ve found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

Defining and, of course using, Depth-of-Field

D of F 1  D of F 2

I recently read a post on Facebook regarding photographing landscapes that said, “I’m not too sure how you’re supposed to choose a focal point when everything can be so similar…I focused on the tree, but not sure how that works for the composition.”

I was impressed with that post when considering that most people seem to just select some automated mode, point their camera, and release the shutter when photographing a landscape.  And, unlike the person that placed that post searching for answers to make her photographs better, many photographers are satisfied with not so sharp compositions.

My retort, all too quickly, was to review depth-of-field, but the Facebook reply box is limiting and not a very good place for such a broad discussion.

In my opinion a scenic/landscape photograph should be sharp, bottom to top. When I say that, I mean those elements in the foreground closest to the viewer should be in focus, and those in the distance should also be sharp enough to show some detail.

For landscape photographers intent on controlling the field of focus in their images, from front to back, do so by learning to manage depth-of-field.

Depth-of-field is defined as, “that area around the main subject, in front of and behind, that is in acceptably sharp focus”, and that will be, of the total field of focus, one-third in front and two-thirds behind the main subject.

Depth of field is controlled with the aperture. The smaller the lenses aperture is the more the area of focus, or depth of field, will be. I prefer using a smaller aperture for scenic photography. Most landscape photographers desire an image that appears sharp throughout the scene, so that elements of foreground interest look just as sharp as the distant horizon. Depth of field does not abruptly change from sharp to unsharp, but instead is a gradual transition. Everything immediately in front of, or in back of, the main subject begins to lose sharpness.

Many use a rule of thumb where one focuses roughly 1/3 of the way into a scene in order to achieve maximum sharpness throughout. While this isn’t optimal because the precise distance also depends on factors like subject distance, aperture, and focal length, it is better that just pointing and depending on the camera’s computer to make that decision.

My suggestion to that aspiring landscape photographer would be to begin by mounting the camera on a good, sturdy tripod. The tripod will negate the need to worry about slow shutter speeds that will likely appear on anything other than bright sunny days. I would also select either Manual or Aperture priority modes because as I wrote, the size of the aperture controls the depth-of-field or, in other words, the field of focus from near to far in the composition. I would then chose an aperture of f/8 or smaller. I would meter the scene and set the shutter to the proper exposure, or as with Aperture priority, let the camera select the shutterspeed.

I might be using a polarizer or a graduated neutral density filter, but that doesn’t matter as long as the camera is steady, the meter reading is correct and the depth of field is enough to cover important elements in my capture.

I always appreciate you comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

What is the (and is there a) best lens for scenic photography?

picking the view  Harper Trail vinyard  Kamloops neighborhood garden  Gig Harbor   peachland storm clouds  Kelowna afternoon River rocks

On a business trip to Canada in 1840 an Englishman named Pattinson made the first known scenic photograph in this country.  A student of an early form of photography perfected by Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, Pattinson set up his camera at Niagara Falls, and produced the now cherished historical Daguerreotype photograph.

That Daguerreotype would have taken more than 20 minutes for the scene to expose on a silver-coated plate inside his camera.  Later the photographer would surround the plate with warm mercury fumes that would slowly make the image visible.

Those Canadian scenic landscape photographers reading this are part of a long history of photographing this country since that moment.

Last week a photographer stopped by my shop looking for a scenic lens. After looking around a bit she asked, “What is the best lens for scenic photography?”

That is a question that is all too familiar, especially from those new to the medium in the process of spending their hard earned money on equipment.

I suggested she take a look at zoom lenses that will give her the most versatility without having to spend the big bucks. There are lenses, for example, like the 18-70mm, 18-200mm, or even 70-300mm are reasonably light and give lots of choices of perspective. However, instead of just recommending a particular lens for scenic photography I wanted her to begin thinking about perspective.

A wide-angle lens has a curved front surface allowing for a wider view. Distances between the foreground and background subjects will be extreme, and the subject closer to the lens will be larger. When using a 18mm focal length for a portrait, the person’s nose will be big and the ears will be small. A 200mm lens will give a more tightly compressed view and distances between the foreground and background subjects will not look as extreme as the wider 18mm focal length. 200mm would be a better lens for photographing that person’s face because of the compressed perspective. An example we commonly see is when we watch a baseball game, and the pitcher looks very close to the catcher, which is caused by the compression of the long focal length lens.

Here is a more practical example. I am photographing a waterfall with cliffs in the background, and with wet rocks in the foreground. If I use a long focal length like the 200mm all the elements will be compressed in the final image with no subject gaining significance over another. However, if I fitted my camera with a 18mm lens the foreground subjects will be larger and more significant, creating distance to the background. Both would be good renditions, just different.

I believe the best lens depends on the perspective that the photographer wants to view in the final image. One must think about the perspective front to back, how much of the scenic is important as in a wide, or narrow, aspect. It comes down to the personal vision and what he or she wants to say about the landscape being captured.

Famous scenic photographer Ansel Adams advised,  “problem solve for the final photograph”.

Like Adams, photographers should think about how the final photograph will be used and how to accomplish that. If one thinks of a final photograph as a series of problems to be solved there will be a smooth transition from initial idea to final print.

There is no one lens that can be termed a “scenic or landscape” lens. Any lens might be used as long as it meets the photographer’s vision. That vision might be to include a wide vista with a wide-angle lens or on the other hand, a tighter cropped image created with a telephoto lens might be visually more powerful. The choice of lens for scenics comes down to what the photographer wants the viewer to feel and see.

Have a comment? Don’t hesitate – I like comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com

Photographing the Fall Fair

Barrier fall fair  The bandstand  Children's wall climb  Lawnmower race 1  Lawnmower race 2Midway  Tractors Cowboy hatsAt the Fall Fair

“Let’s all go to the country fair, there’s blossoms, and ribbons, and hope in the air.  The harvest’s in the endless bin, and Grandpa can bring the old mare.”  Anonymous.

In British Columbia the months of August and September are the season of fall fairs.  Communities large and small host events filled with exhibits of local crops, poultry, livestock, and all sorts of crafts, and the outdoor shows include rodeos, many different horse competitions, and even lawnmower racing. There are action packed midways that include amusement rides and challenges for the children like wall climbing, and there is food. The inviting and almost demanding smell of all kinds of mouthwatering foods confronts participants as far away as the entrance gate as they pull a few dollars out of their pockets to pay the entrance fee enticing everyone to make their next stop one of the food booths.

For this year’s Labour Day weekend my wife and I had the choice of two popular fairs, both about an hour away from our home, the Armstrong Fall Fair, or Interior Provincial Exhibition, is south, and the Barriere Fall Fair, or North Thompson Fall Fair is north.

We have attended both fairs over the years. Armstrong is larger, but this year we decided on Barriere, and besides I have more friends in Barriere.

I mounted my 18-200mm on my camera for our day’s excursion. The 18-200mm is a perfect walking-around lens for events like the one my wife and I were attending. I didn’t need a real wide, long telephoto, or fast aperture lens, as most exposures were ISO 400.  I always employed as fast a shutterspeed as I could and my aperture was usually f/8 or f/11.

The sky had a few clouds and the warm day was perfect for strolling through the small community’s fall fair. I looked around as I walked through the gate and into the excitement-filled fair thinking how that event was ideal for those of us that are always searching for something different to photograph.

The mid-way offered shots of vendors and interesting people engrossed in their visit to the fair. There was a large Agriplex building that presented opportunities to photograph livestock. I got some great images of young 4-H’ers in action and just outside I photographed cowboy musicians, magicians, and children on a climbing wall.

We got there late so I missed the horse pull, but I watched the Lawn Mower racing. Yes, I just wrote “lawn mover racing”. Who would have thought there would be such action, or any action at all from a lawnmower? But there they were, zooming around the dirt track. I have photographed running athletes, horse racing, stockcar, and motorcycle racing, to name a few, however, now I can add lawnmower racing to my resume.

I have always enjoyed community fairs, even before I started carrying a camera around. Nevertheless, ever since I have had my camera events like the Barriere Fall Fair has been great fun with the multitude of different subjects ready to be photographed.  For those photographers that haven’t yet ventured into that fertile photo territory, all I can say, if there is one coming to a fairground near you, put it on your calendar.

I always appreciate your comments. Thanks, John

My website is at www.enmanscamera.com